December 7, 2015

A Catholic Women's League pilgrimage to the Holy Land has revealed both the challenges and the hope facing Holy Land Christians, says CWL president Barb Dowding.

The Nov. 13-23 pilgrimage took 17 CWL members, along with Carl Hétu, Canada's national director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), and St. John's Archbishop Martin Currie to visit projects the CWL supports, to show support for Christians living in the region and to visit the holy sites.

In a Skype interview from Bethlehem Nov. 20, Dowding said walls are everywhere in the Holy Land.

"Walls are such a great divider; we talked about it in almost every meeting: how to break down the walls. Instead of breaking down, they seem to be getting higher and higher."

Dowding said they knew about the security wall, the checkpoints, and difficulties crossing between Israel to Palestine. "That is part of their life and I'm sure it deeply affects them.

"I never felt the people we met were wringing their hands in despair or lacking hope," she said. "They went about their business day by day, despite the challenges."

The CWL pilgrims "all agreed praying for peace is huge," she said. People they meet all say peace seems far away. But they cling to the hope that other great divisions - in Northern Ireland and South Africa - have been overcome.

"All those things that seemed totally impossible have changed."

Currie, who had previously served as a CWL's spiritual advisor and now sits on CNEWA Canada's board, said the Christian population is "roughly two per cent of the population, down from 14 to 15 per cent in 1948."

Currie said Canadian Catholics need to support Christian communities in the Holy Land, not only by seeing the "holy sites, the old stones," but by seeing the "living stones," the Christian communities in existence since apostolic days.

The group visited the two projects the CWL supports, she said. One is the Infant Welfare Centre in the Old City of Jerusalem that helps at-risk teenagers stay in school, even if they face an unplanned pregnancy.

"The success rate is really high," said Dowding. "The centre has a daycare that takes care of little children so mothers can work."

The other is the Shepherd's Field Hospital in Beit Sahour that provides health care for mothers and small children from pregnancy through early childhood.

"The babies, and children up to age four and five were so well cared for and loved, you know you're putting your energies into the right thing," she said.

Dowding noted these projects have been called Velma's Dream, after previous CWL president Velma Harrison, who, after a similar pilgrimage in 2010, was inspired to find ways the CWL could help Holy Land Christians.